by Marion Nestle
Jan 25 2013

Soda industry exploits NAACP and Hispanic Federation in soda cap lawsuit

Who knew that Wednesday’s New York State Supreme Court hearing on the lawsuit filed against New York City’s cap on sodas larger than 16 ounces would turn out to be a debate about race relations?

Let’s be clear.  This lawsuit is about only one thing and one thing only: to protect the profits of Big Soda—mainly, Coca-Cola and PepsiCo.  The lawsuit is funded by their trade association, the American Beverage Association (ABA), at what must be astronomical expense.

But to shift attention away from profit as a motive, the ABA enlisted two organizations of underrepresented groups—the NAACP and Hispanic Federation—to file an amicus brief on behalf of the soda companies.  The brief argues that the soda cap discriminates against citizens and small-business owners in African-American and Hispanic communities.  But it neglects to mention  that both “friends of the court” received funding from soda companies.

The financial arrangements between Big Soda and such groups demand further examination. Fortunately, we have Michael Grynbaum at the New York Times, who explains that:

The obesity rate for African-Americans in New York City is higher than the city average, and city health department officials say minority neighborhoods would be among the key beneficiaries of a rule that would limit the sale of super-size, calorie-laden beverages.

But the N.A.A.C.P. has close ties to big soft-drink companies, particularly Coca-Cola, whose longtime Atlanta law firm, King & Spalding, wrote the amicus brief filed by the civil rights group in support of a lawsuit aimed at blocking Mr. Bloomberg’s soda rules…Coca-Cola has also donated tens of thousands of dollars to a health education program, Project HELP, developed by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. The brief describes that program, but not the financial contributions of the beverage company. The brief was filed jointly with another organization, the Hispanic Federation, whose former president, Lillian Rodríguez López, recently took a job at Coca-Cola.

Soda companies have a long history of targeting their marketing efforts to Blacks and Hispanics, as shown in at least one book (and described in one of its reviews).

Last fall, the East Bay Express exposed how the soda industry exploited race issues and used them to divide and conquer in defeating the Measure N soda tax initiative in Richmond, California.

The No on Measure N workers’ paychecks were signed by political consultant Barnes Mosher Whitehurst Lauter & Partners (BMWL), which had been hired by the American Beverage Association….By the time that Big Soda had arrived, the issue of race was already a factor in the campaign. Some opponents of the tax had alleged that it was racist, arguing that it would unfairly harm low-income residents in the city. And the No on Measure N campaign…nurtured that sentiment. Indeed, there is evidence that the beverage association helped keep race at the forefront of the campaign as part of a strategy that exploited Richmond’s existing tensions.

…the beverage industry discovered a winning formula in Richmond last year that it might be able to replicate elsewhere…And if that were to happen, it could drive a wedge through traditional Democratic constituencies in many communities, with blacks and Latinos opposing their longtime political allies — progressives and environmentalists — just like they did in Richmond.

Is a cap on soda sizes discriminatory?  Quite the contrary.

Public health measures like this are about removing health disparities and giving everyone equal access to good nutrition and health.  This makes public health—and initiatives like the soda cap—democratic, inclusive, and anything but elitist.

But I can’t think of anything more elitist, less inclusive, and more undemocratic than suing New York City over the soda cap.

In funding this suit, the soda industry has made it clear that it will go to any lengths at any cost to protect its profitability—even to the point of dragging along with it the very groups that would most benefit from the initiative.

If the American Beverage Association and its corporate members really cared about Black and Hispanic groups, it would stop target marketing,  stop marketing to children, and stop pretending that sugar-sweetened beverages are an important part of active, healthy lifestyles.  It certainly would stop wasting these groups’ time and credibility on anti-public health lawsuits.

  • David

    You say “Let’s be clear. This lawsuit is about only one thing and one thing only: to protect the profits of Big Soda—mainly, Coca-Cola and PepsiCo.” Yet many see this issue very differently than you. I see this as a fundamental choice that we have related to where we draw the line between individual choice and governmental paternalism? Put aside the question of drinking fructose laden soda. Forget if sugar is bad for us. The issue for many is “Whose choice is it?” And what role should the nanny state play in this issue?

  • David

    You blog entry discusses the notion of “public health”. There is no such thing. There is only each individual’s health. And who wants their neighbor looking over their shoulder at other people and deciding how to use the force of governmental regulation to change anyone’s free choice?

  • Emma

    Thanks for clearing that up! When I first read about the claims of discrimination, I was simply confused, so I’m glad to know (is “glad” too strong?) about the industry ties. Makes rather more sense now.

    I also have to weigh in on the notion that this is exclusively about personal choice. It is clearly much bigger than that. Ms. Nestle and Mark Bittman have made the case far better than I could:

  • What’s arbitary about the law is that it only applies to some stores. Convenience stores like 7-11 and grocery stores will be able to sell any size soda they want. Delis, small take-out restaurants and corner stores (“bodegas” in New York) will be subject to the law. Which of these businesses is most likely to be owned by a minority or exist in a poor neighborhood? Surely the NAACP has an interest — beyond a pittance (and surely Coca-Cola gives equivalent amounts to hundreds of other organizations) — in making sure laws aren’t unfairly restrictive.

  • Michael Bulger

    The law applies to specific establishments, but this doesn’t make it arbitrary. The law applies to all food service establishments that the Board of Health has the authority to regulate in the interest of public health. This authority is granted to the Board of Health by NYC’s Health Code. Grocery stores and 7-11s aren’t considered “Food Service Establishments” under the Health Code, so the Board of Health couldn’t restrict sugary drink sizes at those venues.

    An arbitrary law would be one that is based on random choice or personal whim. The Board of Health’s portion size restriction applies to all establishments that it could legally be applied to under the current system. Therefore, it is not arbitrary.

  • If the “public health” protectors really wanted to help, they’d come out PUBLICLY against Monsanto and the other GMO seed producers/public private partners with the globalist guvmint…

  • Valerie

    You write:
    “Public health measures like this are about removing health disparities and giving everyone equal access to good nutrition and health.”

    How does a soda cap give access to good nutrition and health? It might remove access to bad nutrition and the consequent diseases, maybe (I still wait for an intervention study on humans that would show truly beneficial effects, not just statistically significant improvement in risk factors). But access to good nutrition and health? How?

  • Esteban

    I found this article to be quite interesting. It really makes me think, what has society come to? We are all Americans in times of war, yet in any other time, we are pin pointed on the color of our skin. Its clear that this law suit does not harm African Americans or Hispanics. It is just soda! We really have to stop caring so much about how we look, and focus on bigger issues. Frankly, this law seems quite dumb all together. Why should the goverment be allowed to regulate what we eat?

  • Jeremy Smyczek

    The “free choice” rhetorics that one typically confronts in opposition to regulating corporations seem little more than blaming the victim. As Nestle’s post indicated, people are targeted by Big Soda from a very early age, marketing efforts that reach into every part of their day (school, home, play). Additionally, children are generally habituated to sugar-saturated beverages long before they make their own food purchases. To claim that people make adult decisions independent of these life experiences is impossibly absurd. Moreover, it excuses wealthy corporations from behaving in an ethical manner.

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